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  • Katherine Sun

BERLIN UPCYCLING CULTURE: MAKERSPACES & COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS

May 18, 2024

By: Katherine Sun


Not this time. 
This time––I’ll finish it.

It’s winter break. I’m packing for a Spring semester in Berlin. By packing I mean standing over my suitcases and trying to justify which nonsense items should stay home and which are coming with me to Berlin.


Now, all my unfinished projects are scattered on the bedroom floor. Pieces of denim I chopped off from a much-too-long pair of jeans awaits its completion into a denim purse. A loop of knit bears a raw hem that needs to be cleaned up before I turn it into a balaclava. There is also a dress I’ve been meaning to take in.


"The nonsense items in question. None of these serve a practical purpose." Taken by Katherine Sun


Will I work on it?
Yes. I think I will work on it.
No, this is so silly. I can’t just haul unfinished projects from California to Berlin just because I think it’ll happen.

But this time, it’s different, yeah? 

Berlin: Repair Culture


One of my goals in life is to become fluent in sewing, where one day, I’ll be able to pick up any fabric or piece of clothing, and upcycle it into exactly what I envision it to be. However, with limited time as a student and little access to resources and mentorship, most projects gather dust in the end. 


But before I came to Berlin, a cultural niche caught my attention: there are maker spaces where you can upcycle your clothes or learn new skills, like woodwork or metal. 


So I threw my unfinished projects into my suitcase—it was a bit of a disgrace.


But I’m so glad I did. 



Haus der Materialisierung

Adaptive Reuse: Warehouse meets Makerspace in one of HDM’s many dark, crowded hallways.


You could get lost in there. Imagine a crowded, ice-cold garage. Now imagine that garage 10 times bigger––that’s Haus der Materialisierung. Dimly lit by the sun that manages to crawl in from a few windows, the concrete walls are lined with random objects. Upon first inspection, all rubbish. On closer inspection, everything is a piece of art. Or waiting to become one. It’s brimming with materials—wood, metal, fabric, clothing—that anyone can use. That’s HdM’s principle: “Where material tells a story.” 







Courtesy of HdM’s website


Each room in the space is dedicated to a different material exploration. Near the front entrance, artists repurpose broken bike parts into functioning parts or works of art. In another room, plastic medical supplies from the local hospital are brought to HdM; normally, single-use plastic in a medical context would be sent straight to landfill. After a 9-5 work day, an artist comes to the makerspace to upcycle the plastic waste into functional items, like a flower vase. Another room is brimming with textiles and sewing machines. Volunteer initiatives, such as sewing undergarments for homeless people, also occupy rooms at HdM


‘The Scream,’ but make it #bikecore.
The Textile Room – Haus der Materialisierung

Using an industrial sewing machine for the first time!


My first day visiting HdM, I was overwhelmed with happiness to find two industrial sewing machines and a serger—machines I’ve dreamed of learning to use, but have never had access to. A serger, for example, is an industrial-level machine that uses multiple threads to cover raw edges and give a seamless finish. It’s an essential machine for cleaning up hems and delicate fabrics. The marks of a serger distinguish amateur sewing from professional sewing. However, if you’re not apprenticing, in a factory, or studying fashion, it’s a rare machine to come by.





Here, with the support of just one community member, I was sewing straight lines for the first time on an industrial sewing machine—all within 30 minutes of first stepping foot in Haus der Materialisierung. Impressed by the immense amount of machines, material access, and community support, I started to come back in my free time.



How Does It Work? HdM’s Business Model


So how does HdM operate? How does it have machines, materials, and spaces for such a low cost? Who’s funding this?


The answer is it is community-led. And no, people aren’t paid. HdM is a community, volunteer-based effort of adaptive reuse run by local initiatives and institutions. To understand its “business model,” it is helpful to trace the history of HdM’s site in the unique context of Berlin.


Where HdM resides on Karl-Marx-Allee is on the grounds of an infamous building called “Haus der Statistik” [House of Statistics], which once headquartered the GDR’s (“German Democratic Republic” or commonly known as “East Germany”) State Central Administration for Statistics. After reunification, the German government continued to use the building until 2009. Then, the building sat abandoned for almost a decade.


Art installation in the hallways of HdM


Over time, artists and squatters stepped in. In 2015, an art event was staged at the abandoned “House of Statistics.” A group of artists named “The Alliance of Threatened Berlin Studio Houses” (AbBA) hung a poster that mimicked a building sign that wrote: „Hier entstehen für Berlin: Räume für Kunst, Kultur und Soziales“ [Translation: “This is where Berlin is being created: spaces for art, culture and social issues”] (“Das Haus”). This endeavor of urban activism brought a once-abandoned political building to public attention, thus catalyzing a process of reform and renewed interest from the State.





Today, HdM is part of the Koop5 cooperative, a “public interest-oriented model project” (“Info”), consisting of five municipal and civil society organizations. Within HdM, it is run by a community of artists, activists, and designers. Institutions like the Technische Universität Berlin have formerly run research projects in Haus der Materialisierung. Anyone is welcome to donate materials or take what they need for a project. Partnerships with the local hospital, for example, ensure that materials like single-use plastic are given a new life. HdM is no business, but it operates on the principles of extending care, community, and circular economies.


To me, the beauty of Haus der Materialisierung is the care and community re-established around spaces and material items deemed no longer necessary to society. A formerly abandoned building teeming with items deemed trash are transformed by makers into functional items and desired art pieces. The community here breathes new life into this space. From the outside, it may appear like a cold, concrete building. But step in, and you’ll find a community of makers.



For the longest time, I thought my unfinished projects were the fault of my own creative stumbles and project paralysis. Now that I’ve visited Haus der Materialisierung, I strongly feel that if it weren’t for the accessibility to tools and the inviting and receptive advice of the HdM community, I wouldn’t have been able to challenge myself and grow in the space of making. Let’s just say, the projects that were thrown in my suitcase would have continued to collect dust back home.




 

Katherine Sun is a Junior at NYU Gallatin studying Design and Environmentalism. She enjoys upcycling clothes, visual art, and solo traveling. In her spare moments, you can find her adding to her playlist of sampled music and watching DJ sets.



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